September 29, 2022

Voters say they want a new political party. Will Forward be?

Like Coke and Pepsi, the Democratic and Republican parties dominate the American political market. But their customers — the voting public — aren’t exactly thrilled with their choices. According to Gallup, 62% of voters say neither of the two major parties adequately represents the American people. More voters now identify as independents than as Democrats or Republicans.

Meanwhile, a rise in political extremism, particularly on the right, has alarmed democracy scholars who warn that politicians are pandering to partisans and abandoning the centre. This is partly because so few constituencies are still competitive and most elections are decided by primaries, where moderation is rarely rewarded.

Is it time for a new national party? And haven’t we seen this movie before?

The latest contender is the Forward Party. Launched last month, the party is led by former Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang and former Republican governor of New Jersey Christine Todd Whitman. His rhetoric is that most voters want pragmatism not partisanship and that the current duopoly is not up to the task.

“There’s a lot of common ground” in policymaking, says Joel Searby, the party’s national director. “But it’s not advanced because extremes are taking over conversations.”

Skeptics say the electoral system – single-member constituencies won by a plurality – is stacked against third parties, which is why they barely register at election time. Voters’ declared independence also does not translate into a winnable bloc since most are actually partisan-leaning, even if they do not identify as Republicans or Democrats. Larger parties also enjoy a huge head start when it comes to organizing and fundraising. In some states, just getting elected is a challenge.

Then there’s the issue of presidential election spoilers. Minor candidates are more likely to siphon off support from one side and give victory to the other, thus installing a minority vote hoard.

History shows that new parties can emerge and challenge the status quo, says Bernard Tamas, associate professor of politics at Valdosta State University in Georgia. It has happened before and could happen again, especially in a time of polarization and dysfunction. “Third parties have the ability to throw a wrench into the system,” he says.

But these parties also tend to “sting and die” like bees after their election victories have forced a course correction by larger parties, says Professor Tamas, author of “The Demise and Rebirth of American Third Parties”. This is how Republicans and Democrats took up the challenge of progressive candidates in the early 20th century.

The Forward Party says it seeks to “eliminate extreme partisanship, reintroduce a competition of ideas and work together in good faith”. But it offers no prescription for social or economic policy, nor any vision of America’s role in the world.

Mr Searby says it is intentional – and its members will decide on a national platform. Party leaders will hold an official launch in Houston in September, followed by a national convention in 2023. The goal is to get candidates on the ballot in all 50 states by 2024.

Whatever platform is adopted will be flexible, as policies that work in some states or cities will not work in others. “It’s a new kind of politics and policy-making,” says Searby. “We are building this party from the ground up.”

This flexible approach does not convince everyone. Matthew Shugart, a political scientist at the University of California, Davis, says parties usually organize around a social or economic interest. But Mr. Yang “asked us to ‘imagine’ a political party without ideology and without ties of special interest. … This is not how successful political parties are built,” he said by email.

The place of the Forward Party in the left-right political continuum is unclear. Mr Searby says he has heard from both Republicans and alienated Democrats looking for common ground, although he says right-wing extremism poses a greater danger to democracy.

Most voters associate third-party candidates with presidential elections: Ross Perot in 1992 and Ralph Nader in 2000. In 2016, Mr. Searby was an adviser to Evan McMullin, an independent who ran as a candidate for Never-Trump; Mr. McMullin is this year’s candidate for the US Senate in Utah.

In contrast, the Forward Party initially focuses on finding and supporting candidates for local and state elected office, not a presidential race. “We’re not going to show up in 2024 and compete with the two main parties,” Mr Searby says.

In recent years, billionaires like Howard Schultz and Michael Bloomberg have flirted with independent presidential elections; Mr. Bloomberg, former mayor of New York, ended up seeking the Democratic nomination. Both presented themselves as problem-solving pragmatists who leaned right on fiscal issues and left on cultural issues, largely in tune with their social peers.

But that’s probably not the best combination for a viable third party, says Jack Santucci, a political scientist at Drexel University in Philadelphia. “Most Americans are left on the economy and right on social issues,” he says.

One set of issues the Forward Party advocates is preferential-choice voting, open primaries and other reforms to “give Americans more choice in elections,” its website says. These innovations are already happening in states like Alaska and Maine and are popular with young voters, says Professor Santucci. And these electoral reforms could outlive everything the new party is doing, in terms of shaking up the duopoly that is the two-party system.

“The Forward Party is more likely to succeed in popularizing anti-party reform than in electing its own candidates,” he said.

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